Sunday, June 28, 2009

Japan summer sales

The summer sales in Japan began on Friday and the stores are a madhouse. I was successful and picked up some clothing for a reasonable price (i.e., $20 US), even if finding items to fit can be a challenge. Size-wise I'm considered a Large since Asian women are pretty petite (same problem in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, China). I don't even bother trying on any pants, but I've had good luck with skirts.

The clothes are pretty conservative and shapeless. Lots of baby-doll tops and frills. Way too girly for my taste sometimes. Strapless or sleeveless tops are worn with a shirt underneath or a sweater or jacket covers their arms. Women also tend to wear nude-colored stockings and pedi's with their ballet slipper shoes. It's too warm here (80's) for me to feel comfortable wearing layers of clothes (but I try to), but stockings and socks don't even enter my mind.

I still have 6 more days left in Japan. Six more days of listening to the sales clerks cry out "come in" and lure you in with shouts of their discounts, which can get very loud with many of the stores so close to each other. Six more days of glorious shopping! :-)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Only in Japan

Toilets with bells and whistles....flushing sound (musical note, with volume control) and "powerful deodorizer" (silver button on the right). What?! No seat warmer? This was taken at the public bathroom in a nearby shopping mall. It's not the fanciest toilet I've seen, but pretty good for a public restroom. With toilets like this I am baffled as to why anyone would prefer squatting, which is still an option in some bathrooms. The ladies room at the Yokohama baseball stadium had both options available.
In the same bathroom are stalls for women to put on their make-up. I took a reflection of them in the mirror. This is a fairly upscale shopping mall.

Lastly, Starbucks are everywhere and I have been in the one next to the hotel a couple of times. What I thought was cool is the stirrer that fits in the hole of the cup. It does a good job sealing the hole so the coffee isn't spilling everywhere. I don't recall ever seeing this in the U.S. Anyone know if they have them in the U.S.?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sushi in Japan is awesome

Need I say more? Perfectly seasoned rice with wasabi already on top (no wasabi on the side!) and fresh fish and a bowl of perfect miso soup....can there be anything better?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Requisite Food Post

I have to have at least one post on food, so here is the Japan installment.

For some reason, whenever I'm in an Asian city I become more Japanese at breakfast. In the U.S. I love eggs and pancakes for breakfast. In Asian cities, I eat more traditional Asian breakfasts although I never grew up on them. I typically eat a bowl of miso soup (with tofu and green onions), a couple of pieces of tofu, the daily fish (mackerel or salmon), steamed vegetables, a salad, some Japanese side dishes (changes daily) and rice. Every now and then I have some yogurt with watermelon (really sweet) and granola (no granola for days now). The photo is of my Saturday breakfast with the yellow stuff some sort of pumpkin salad (similar to potato salad with sounds awful but it's quite yummy).
As I've mentioned in other posts, eating in restaurants has been quite challenging in this trip because few have English menus or menus with pictures. Most do have lovely displays of plastic food, which help somewhat (if you memorize the price of the item and the first character). A lot of the restaurants are on one or more levels of a shopping building. For lunch today I took photos of my restaurant choices on one level to illustrate the variety of food available and to show how specialized these restaurants are. The specialization makes it difficult to find a restaurant that my colleague and I are interested in (should be even more interesting in week 3 when our reviewer arrives).
Sushi...of course!

This is the tonkatsu restaurant, which is basically fried food. Typically meats and shrimp, but I've also had potato-type tonkatsu as well. Usually served with cabbage and rice. I doubt I'll ever eat here.

This is a soba restaurant, which is a buckwheat noodle. They serve it either in a hot broth with items such as tempura, pork, etc. or cold (top row). I like soba if it's not too whole-wheaty and preferably fried with cabbage and worcestershire sauce (as I had at the baseball game).

Some kind of fish place....I think.

The udon place where I had lunch. Udon noodles are fat and made with flour. I grew up with my mom and grandmother making homemade ones. These were homemade and quite yummy. No English menus but my favorite is tempura udon so I asked if they had it ("Tempura udon aremasu ka?"). It sort of was the item on the far right on the second shelf, but had 2 pieces of fish and some vegetables as well. Yum!

This looks to be a tempura restaurant with chawanmushi (a hot egg custard). I'd love to try this place, but am afraid that I would have to resort to memorizing the character and price of what I want. Plus there are a lot of unknown items in these meals.

We had dinner at this place one night. They had picture menus and I ended up with their cold soba noodles. This place was rather healthy with the calories printed on the menu and oats in the rice. Food was good and very quick and we would consider returning.

In addition to these Japanese restaurants I've found Chinese, Indian (2 of them to quench my saag paneer craving), Thai (excellent Yom Yum soup!), California Pizza Kitchen and lots of Italian.

Plus Beard Papa's (my favorite cream puffs in Hawaii), gelato, and Portuguese donuts (malasadas!) for dessert. I have yet to find my favorite cookies - palmiers - but I'm sure I'll find a bakery with them. I definitely don't starve when I'm in Japan. I'm in dire need of exercise though!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I am pleased to report that I successfully navigated the train system and made it to Yokohama. There's a non-stop train from Kawasaki (15 minutes), but the difficulty was trying to figure out how to buy a ticket from the machines when the maps are not in English. I had to default to the ticket office, which was a pleasant experience.

Once I got to Yokohama, I changed to a local train in order to head to the port area (Minato Mirai). The area is supposed to be geared for visitors. There's a lovely park at the waterfront, next to the convention center along with a "boardwalk". Most people were sitting, having lunch and watching the boats in the water. I was surprised to see this guy in his suit actually laying on the concrete step. I know Japan is clean but I couldn't even sit on the step in white pants without first sitting on something!

The tallest building in Yokohama is located in the area (left photo), which I had originally thought I would go visit. But after walking down to the waterfront I thought the huge ferris wheel would be a better way to see the area. It's like the London Eye - a leisurely one rotation ride. I got to have my own pod - whoo hoo!

After a wonderful sushi lunch (sushi in Houston pales in will I be able to eat that stuff again?), I went looking for the Hard Rock Cafe in order to pick up a key chain for one of my colleagues who collects them. I figured I had about 2 hours to kill before I should head to the baseball stadium so the Yokohama Museum of Art seemed to be the perfect place. They had a special exhibit of French 19th century art, much of it from Japanese collections, including Yokohama's museum. Nice to be able to see pieces that aren't in the Musee de Orsay.

Around 4:30 pm I took another local train to the baseball stadium. Thank goodness I found a blog earlier that explained which station to get off. There were a number of people on the train going to the game even at 1.5 hours prior to game time. I heard that baseball games are quite well attended in Japan so I was a bit nervous that I wouldn't be able to get a ticket. No problem when you get there early!

4,000 yen later and I have a seat in the left field favorite section. Unfortunately the ticket office only takes cash (they aren't even tell them which section you want and they flip through printed tickets to find a seat for you) and I needed to find an ATM to get more cash or else I would be hungry all evening. I also read in the blog that people bring their own food into the stadium and there were street vendors outside of the train station selling bento boxes and other items for hungry fans. So off I went to look for an ATM that accepts international cards (not easy).

Oh thank heaven for 7-11! Not only did I pick up some cash, I got my beverages and some inari sushi along with lots of other fans stocking up on food and beer to bring to the game. Made me wonder how the stadium could any sell food when everyone brings their own. Besides my goodies from 7-11 I bought some fried soba from a street vendor (he had a fancy move to fill the container) and teriyaki chicken from another. I love this idea of bringing food to a game!

The Yokohama Bay Stars were playing the Fukuoka Sky Hawks. Fukuoka happens to be the city where my mother is from. In fact, I've seen their stadium. What I didn't know when I bought the ticket is that the left side of the stadium is for the guest fams. So I'm sitting with Fukuoka fans. Pretty cool! Both teams have a small band consisting of a drum and trumpet players sitting in the outfield seats (left photo is of the Fukuoka outfield section). They pretty much play the entire time their team is batting. The fans in the outfield are also singing with the music, which got a bit annoying because it's the same song repeatedly. I do like the Fukuoka's celebratory song (after a runner scores) which ends with three "banzais!" The fans cheer using plastic bats and noisemakers, a very civilized way to express joy! Because I was in the opponent's section, the souvenir stores in the stadium only sold the opponent's merchandise!

For those of you who care about these things, the pitchers bat in the game, which I think makes for a better game.

The home team lost. It was a bad night for the pitchers of both teams....5 home runs in the first 25 minutes. I think there were 8 or 9 in the entire game (I lost count after awhile). I made it through the top of the 9th, which was 3.5 hours into the game. All in all, a good visit to Yokohama!

More photos can be seen at

Friday, June 19, 2009

It's Friday!

After putting in 10 hour days for 3 days, I'm exhausted. A 3.5 hour meeting that started at 9 pm on Thursday night put me over the edge. I stayed awake thanks to Starbucks (there's one next door) and woke up tired on Friday morning. I'm looking forward to a weekend of touring somewhere. Maybe Yokohama to catch a baseball game (their team is infamous and it would be cool to experience baseball in Japan). I need to do some research tonight an decide. Saturday's weather forecast is supposed to be quite nice, whereas Sunday it will be rainy.

I have no idea what the temps are here. I believe they're in the 70's during the day. This morning it was quite humid, but dissipated by the time we left work. It's cool and comfortable right now.

I've had 2 bottles of the Diet Coke with green tea flavoring. It's not sweet as U.S. Diet Coke and I can't taste the green tea at all. I'd buy it again.

Eating in Kawasaki has been quite a challenge. Menus here are in Japanese. Some have pictures of some of the dishes, which is what we've been relying on. The staff don't speak English either. Tonight we went to a place where you grill meat on a small gas grill. The beef was highly marbled and melted in my mouth. Sublime. We rolled the meat up in lettuce leaves and dipped them in a miso-soy sauce. My colleague added some chili paste for heat. It's the best meal I've had so far.

Lunches at the company canteen have been OK. You have 3 choices for lunch. One is a curry. The other is the daily special - something with rice. The third is a cold noodle dish such as udon, ramen or soba in a small amount of cold broth with vegetables on top. You pay via a vending machine in advance and take the ticket to the counter. Our guest auditor tells me which button to push because it's all in Japanese of course. I get flashbacks of eating at a ramen restaurant in Tokyo every time I have lunch (for those who haven't heard that story, my friend and I had no idea what we were ordering and we selected based on price...he got a steaming bowl of noodles and I got cold noodles and a chilly December day!).

I have to take a photo of the vending machines here this weekend. I'm always amazed at what one can buy from the vending machines that seem to be on every block. Like the beer and liquor machine at the train station. Who needs a 7-11 when a machine will do.

We've been taking the train to and from work for the past 2 days. It's always silent in the mornings and livelier in the afternoon. Guess it reflects how people feel about going to work.

I took this photo on the train this morning. Could someone please explain why this sticker on the train door would be written in Portuguese? Would there really be enough Portuguese speakers to warrant a sticker like this?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blending in with the masses

Today I experienced first-hand what it feels like to work in Japan. My colleauge and I took the train to work. The hotel is across the street from 2 or 3 different train stations. The one that we take is about a 5-minute walk...along with all the other Japanese either walking to their train station or going to work. I took this photo after work, but it looked similar in the morning with twice as many people.

What struck me most was the sea of black hair, white shirts and black slacks. A splash of color was sorely needed. I now wish I packed a bright colored shirt so that I don't have to blend into the sameness that Japan is known for. The evening I arrived I noticed that everyone had black umbrellas, as if that was the only color available for purchase. Unfortunately, it's the rainy season in Japan and I forgot to bring an umbrella so I'll blend in even when it rains.

The train was clean, quiet and about $1.50 for a ticket. My colleague was actually silenced by a passenger because we were making small talk (he put his hand on her arm and shushed her, then sat down and closed his eyes). And so we learned that many use the time to sleep. Not surprising since some spend hours commuting. We have a guest auditor from Tokyo who lives in the far eastern part of the city, near Tokyo Disneyland. It takes him 2 hours each way and 4 train changes to get to work. Luckily this only a 3 week audit and he'll be back to a 1 hour commute to the office.

Upon arrival at our destination, we board a company bus to take us to the plant. It leaves at precisely 8:26 am. I made sure I synchronized my watch to their time. We missed the afernoon bus by a minute and ended up taking a taxi home rather than wait an hour for the next bus. The taxi cost $39 so I'm sure we'll be on time from now on!

This morning 4 Middle Eastern mafia-looking guys had breakfast in the hotel. Two of them wouldn't take their sunglasses off the entire time. They sat at the table behind us and didn't speak. They were oddly out of place. It'll be interesting to see if they're back tomorrow.

After dinner I stopped into Krispy Kreme and picked up a donut. How could I resist the "Hot Doughnuts Now" light? They pulled KK out of Texas and I have to come to Japan for my fix? Even better, they were giving away a free donut to eat while waiting in line. I only wanted one but ended up with two. What a great dessert!

The last words for today's blog will be "Coke Plus with Green Tea flavor." It was such an unusual combination that I HAD to buy one. I can't wait to try it tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kawasaki, Japan

The travel blog is back in business, now that I’m on the road again! Whoo hoo! I’m spending the next 3 weeks in Kawasaki, which is an industrial area near Tokyo. I was asked to fill in for an auditor who is ill and is not allowed to travel. The decision was made on Tuesday and I flew out from San Diego on Monday (the day after my niece's wedding). This was possibly the most short notice I've ever been given. Since I've been complaining about being grounded this year for no good reason, I couldn't pass up this opportunity now could I?

I arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday night after spending 12 hours on the flight from Los Angeles. The virus scare is evident as I saw face masks worn by many of the airport personnel. Passengers staying in Japan had to fill out a health questionnaire. Not only do they want to know where you're staying and how long you'll be in the country, but whether or not you've been running a temperature or have been coughing, have a sore throat or runny nose. Plus the form asked for your seat number. I hear it's a lot worse in China where they actually take your temperature!

I’m writing while on a bus to the city airport – Haneda – as it’s the easiest way to get closer to Kawasaki, after which I’ll either take a taxi to the hotel. Flying into Haneda was either ridiculously expensive or way too long (no direct flights from the U.S.). The bus ride will take 75 minutes, especially since it’s 8 pm and we’ve missed rush hour traffic.

Narita is the international airport in Tokyo. Although I’ve flown here a number of times before (mostly to connect to other cities in the region), this is my second visit since 2006. I have to comment on the awesome baggage carousel, which is a great example of Japanese Ingenuity. There are sensors on the end of the carousel where the luggage comes off the conveyor belt. The bags stop if the sensors detect there are luggage on the carousel that’s turning. The belt quickly starts up and drops the waiting bag into an empty slot on the carousel. I watched my bag patiently waiting for an opening. It took a perhaps a minute but no double-parked bags on the carousel! How cool. I wonder why more airports don’t have these installed.

As I type, I’m listening to a high-school aged girl from Colombia (from Bogota no less) talk with a woman sitting next to her on the bus. She lives in North Carolina and speaks a little Japanese. I think her comprehension is about the same level as mine. Luckily the woman speaks very good English. She’s here for 6 weeks, staying with a host family. She says she’s always been fascinated by the country and is looking forward to learning about the country. I can hear the excitement in her voice. It's so cute that she's comparing everything to Colombia. For example, she asked if there were stalls where you buy fruits and vegetables as there are in Colombia (nope). She's just trying to get her bearings.

I'm now in my tiny hotel room. Probably the smallest room I've ever had on a business trip. But internet access is included along with breakfast. It's across the street from the train station (no horns blaring as they are in Houston) and there are lots of restaurant and shopping options within walking distance. Still, it'll be a cramped 3 weeks in here.

The taxi ride to the hotel from the airport was about $40 US. Most of the taxi drivers wear white hats, white gloves, white shirts and black trousers. The doors open by a push of a lever so they don't have to get out and you don't have to touch the door. :-)

I look forward to adding photos and being a better blogger than I was in Thailand. I hope to get out to Yokohama one weekend since it's only 4 train stops away and supposed to have lots of sites to see. And perhaps see more of Tokyo the second weekend. Since I'm pinch-hitting for an auditor, I am not leading the audit and should be far less busy than normal. :-) Stay tuned to this space!

P.S. It's weird logging into and seeing Japanese characters where Sign In should be!